My folks lived in the same home for 46 years. The special place always took on extra energy and enthusiasm during the last two weeks of the year as my parents prepared and introduced their seven children to the celebration of the birth of Christ, holiday plays, Santa Claus and New Year's Resolutions.
As the years rolled along and we grew up, they then hosted us as part-time borders during our college winter breaks ("Bob, we are going to have to buy more food") and later welcomed any and all of us - with wives, husbands and grandkids in tow - to return for a few days of holiday cheer and memories after we had moved away. How they knew only two or three of their seven children would show up in the same year always was curious.
When Bob, my dad, died 14 years ago, my mom sold the family home and moved to a more manageable condo and eventually a retirement home. I dearly miss the old place and the crazy comings and goings, giving and receiving that took place there during the holiday season.
How will my childhood holiday memories compare with those of our four children - now only occasional visitors - in the place they had called home? That thought comes to the front burner as we approach another Christmas.
One of my most vivid memories of the holiday season was my first experience of a Christmas play (the nuns of the Blessed Virgin Mary loved to label it "the children's holiday pageant") held at the elementary school auditorium just five blocks from our family home. The extravaganza was viewed from steel folding chairs in the packed parish hall by eager parents darting toward the stage with cameras, anticipating the perfect Kodak moment when their Freddy - only a blur as he stood four rows deep in the student band - clanged the cymbals to mark the surprise conclusion of "Angels We Have Heard on High."
I can remember standing on those steel chairs as a preschooler, looking toward the entry for my father to come flying in the door late from work, his necktie flopping about his chest as he lunged in the darkness to find the seat my mother carefully guarded with her folded overcoat.
He then miraculously would expose a tiny camera with a huge flash that looked like a pie tin with 40-watt bulb in the middle of it that simultaneously lit and blinded the hall and all of its spectators. When the last carol was sung and the final nativity scene photographed, the venue would shift to the parish hall for conversation and cookies.
"Didn't Michael look just like Joseph?'' Sister Mary Arcadia asked me nearly 50 years ago.
"I guess so.''
I would guess the memories that are close to the top of our kids' lists are the days that we actually hosted Santa Claus in our home. What we thought would be a one-time shot turned into a much-awaited annual event. This string of magical times originally began when we made a successful bid on "One Hour with Santa" at the local babysitting co-op auction fundraiser.
We invited the neighborhood, the event became a huge success and our home was deemed headquarters for Santa's annual pre-Christmas visit - regardless of who won "the hour" at subsequent co-op auctions.
Much to our children's surprise, the main reason we always were given the honor of hosting The Big Fella could easily be traced to an exterior staircase. We had the only house in the neighborhood with outside stairs that accessed a second floor. Santa easily climbed the exterior stairs with his bag of toys then bounded down the interior staircase at exactly the right moment. The right moment was determined to be when all cameras were properly loaded. As expected, our cameras show Santa traumatized the same number of many kids as he pleased.
I failed to ask my dad before he died what topped his list of holiday memories brought by 46 years in that home. Could he have lived without all those Christmas plays - and the experience of sitting in those folding chairs? What became of the rolls of film he shot from that archaic camera?
Sometime in the next two weeks, I will make a point to ask our children about their top memory of the holiday season. Unfortunately, one of those conversations will have to take place on the phone. Not the ideal situation, but at least I'll know.
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